GREENWOOD— Supporters of local zoning control in Greenwood Township will make their case to the town board on Tuesday, May 13, as township officials weigh whether to maintain a local planning and zoning process, or hand authority over to St. Louis County.
The debate over the future of the township’s planning and zoning process has percolated through the township for more than a year, and the town board agreed to take up the issue after receiving direction from residents at the township’s annual meeting in March. The town board heard from those who favor county control during a meeting last month, and board members are expected to decide the issue after hearing from both sides.
The divide within the township over the issue has become increasingly contentious in the wake of a March 24 decision by the Greenwood Board of Adjustment to approve a controversial boathouse variance near Oak Narrows on Lake Vermilion. In that case, the board okayed a variance for Al Hatfield that allows for construction of a 1,320 square foot boathouse—roughly two and a half times the 520 square foot maximum permitted under the ordinance.
The Board of Adjustment had denied, without prejudice, a request by Hatfield last October for a 1,664 square foot boathouse at the same location. At the time, the board determined that Hatfield had reasonable alternatives to his oversized boathouse and that denial would not create any practical difficulty or hardship. Hatfield, a Sarasota, Florida, resident, owns 56 acres and over a mile of shoreline on Lake Vermilion. He has two existing boathouses, including one that is larger than the ordinance allows.
Board of Adjustment members, in October, had suggested that Hatfield come back with a modified proposal that was more in line with the ordinance. It was his second proposal, for the somewhat smaller boathouse, that won the approval of the board in March and raised the ire of some residents of the township.
Lee Peterson, a critic of the decision, contends that such a boathouse would not have been approved by St. Louis County, and he advocates turning such decisions back to a planning and zoning staff that he views as more experienced, professional, and less subject to neighborhood favoritism. They also point to financial savings to the township and its taxpayers, since they would no longer need to pay for the cost of a planning director and other associated expenses. Township residents currently pay for the cost of St. Louis County planning and zoning as part of the county portion of their tax bills, and they pay for the cost of maintaining local zoning authority through the township portion of their taxes.
Supporters of maintaining local control say the county’s process has had its share of questionable decisions, and that the township is better off leaving its future in the hands of residents, who must live with the consequences. “I would rather have the residents of GWT shape our neighborhood than people from another part of the county,” wrote Board of Adjustment chair Mary Worringer, in an email to a township resident that was provided to the Timberjay.
Supporters of local control cite another controversial Lake Vermilion boathouse decision, this one made by the county a number of years ago, as arguing for maintaining township zoning authority. They also cite actions taken by county planners in 2010 surrounding the St. Louis County School District’s efforts to overturn zoning rules in Field Township in order to build its North Woods School.
Supporters also contend that the township has the ability to enact more restrictive zoning than St. Louis County, although such efforts have not always met with public support in the township. A recent proposal by township planners to enact a dark-sky ordinance faced considerable opposition and was withdrawn for now.
Supporters also argue that township planning meetings are typically held in the evenings, which makes them easier for those with daytime jobs to attend. By contrast, meetings of the county planning commission and board of adjustment meet during regular work hours.
Critics complain, however, that access to information on zoning cases is not as readily accessible under township control, particularly when controversy arises. Since rural townships are not covered by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the rules for access to public information from townships are not as prescribed as with virtually every other governmental body.
And in Greenwood, recently adopted rules which require that information requestors fill out a written request form at the town hall and pay for both copies and staff time, are more expensive and cumbersome than with St. Louis County, where most requests for planning and zoning documents are quickly supplied electronically upon an emailed request, usually at no charge.
Despite the controversy, it’s not clear that the township will make a change any time soon. After hearing from the various perspectives, the question will be left in the hands of the town board, which would have the option of discontinuing township zoning authority, or maintaining the status quo.
Some critics of local zoning authority say they’re researching the process for getting the issue to a public vote, in which case they believe most residents will side with them.